Recent disturbing revelations of hundreds of unmarked graves of Indigenous students at former Canadian residential schools have left some educators more committed than ever to ensure students across the board learn about the notorious schools and become more educated about First Nations culture.
Paul Ash, the regional executive director of the South Shore Regional Centre for Education (SSRCE), said the recent discoveries of the unmarked graves in B.C. and Saskatchewan “definitely hit us all hard. We want to say prayers go out directly to the families involved with that, and to the community.”
The estimated 215 unmarked graves of students found in Kamloops, B.C. less than a month ago, and a further estimated 751 unmarked graves reported earlier this week as having been found at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School near the Cowessess First Nation in southern Saskatchewan, has shocked Canadians of all backgrounds.
This is not a time to be silent, but a time to ask questions and learn, said Ash.
“In times of grief and sadness, there’s an opportunity for us as an educational system to make sure we’re using these teachable moments to encourage conversations in our classrooms,” Ash commented in a phone interview.
“It creates learning opportunities for us, and speaks to the importance of following through on the commitments we have made,” he said.
Meanwhile, Nova Scotia’s school curriculum has been evolving to include more education about First Nations culture.
Students are engaging in conversations about the province’s Mi’kmaq and their culture. On a broader scale, they’re being educated on treaties and the residential schools and have stepped up to take part in activities such as Orange Shirt Day, aimed to show support for residential school survivors, and projects related to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women concerns.
First Nations staff and students are a big part of the school community. Members of the Wildcat Reserve In Queens County work hand-in-hand with educators and students on various projects, according to Ash.
“I am extremely impressed with the First Nations community on the South Shore. They have been very open to working with us and working with our schools,” he commented. “I also think our students are absolutely fantastic in terms of demanding better from us as a larger society with the conversations they are having.”
The SSRCE has taken a “multi-layered” approach to education around First Nations culture, and learning opportunities are included at all grade levels, Ash explained.
“I think we are moving in the right direction. We’re trying to maintain and enhance our relationship with the local First Nations communities and we are proud of some of the work that we’ve been able to accomplish,” he said.
“But there is more work to be done and we’re committed to doing that work,” he added.
Schools in the province are also working on overall inclusivity in the education system. Last year the province rolled out its Inclusive Education Policy, which, according to Ash, speaks to “our responsibility to ensure all students are reflected and validated in the education process.
“It also speaks to the need for us as an education system to ensure all individuals are exposed to diverse perspectives and understanding as well.”
According to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, there were 130 residential schools located across the country, with the last one closing in 1996. The commission has indicated that the government-funded, church-run schools were set up to eliminate parental involvement in the intellectual, cultural and spiritual development of Aboriginal children.
With the initial uncovering of graves in B.C. there has been a concerted push to search for possible more unmarked graves or grave sites where residential schools were built.
The only residential school in Nova Scotia was the former Shubenacadie Indian Residential School that was built in 1928-29 in the Sipekni’katik district of Mi’kma’ki, at the top of a small hill between Highway 2 and the Shubenacadie River. The school was open until 1967.
Initial investigations around the school site have been done with no unmarked graves or burial sites found at this point.
Kevin McBain, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, LighthouseNOW Progress Bulletin